Meenal Lele (M&T’05), Founder & CEO of Hanimune Therapeutics, is working hard to build a future without food allergies. She recently sat down with us to talk about what she’s working on and how the M&T Program helped get her to where she is today.
Q: You’re the founder and CEO of Hanimune Therapeutics which owns Lil Mixins. Can you talk about how you started the company?
ML: I started it out of the classic you see a problem and there has to be a solution for it. My older son had already developed food allergies and we were motivated to make sure my younger son didn’t develop them as well. It was so much more difficult than people were making it sound. Babies can’t eat peanut butter, so parents want to wait until babies approach their first birthday, but that is too late from a development standpoint. We’re slowly convincing the medical community to consider products made with infants in mind. We aren’t trying to medicalize food, but rather, we’re trying to solve a real barrier to adoption and we’re trying to make it accessible to everyone. 50% of families are on Medicaid and WIC and they have no access to nuts or eggs, even if they were willing to use “natural foods.” We can’t eradicate food allergy unless the solutions actually work for everybody.
So, while Lil Mixins is a B2C company, this has never been the end goal. Rather, we’re slowly working with medical societies, with payers, etc. to convince them to pick up the ball for these families who can’t do it on their own. Our long-term goal is to come up with a workable solution for the Medicaid community.
Q: What exactly is Lil Mixins?
ML: We have a suite of solutions around prevention of allergic disease. We have a probiotic that is used in pregnancy and in early infancy that has been shown to reduce the risk of eczema – which is a terrible disease and the single biggest cause of food allergies – by 50%. We also have products around early allergen introduction/integration. These are shelf-stable, concentrated protein powders of the most common allergens (peanuts, tree nuts, eggs, soy, sesame). When fed regularly to infants starting around 5 months of age, they have been found to reduce the risk of food allergies by up to 97%. Nobody is born with a food allergy. It’s a disease you develop, and you can prevent its development by training the system early to develop immunity to these proteins. Infants take these supplements through at least their first birthday or when they can safely accommodate these foods into their regular diets.
A lot of the background and science is included in my book, The Baby and the Biome, which I wrote to help people understand how the immune system develops, and the control we have, through simple choices, to ensure a much healthier life for our kids.
Q: How did you start your career?
ML: I started out as a consultant in the pharma space. I always wanted to be in the medical industry. After a few years, I had an opportunity to be on the founding team of a start-up orthopedic company where I oversaw all clinical studies, medical education and marketing, and surgeon training. We grew it and sold it to Zimmer Orthopedics (now Zimmer BioMed) in 2013.
I stayed with Zimmer for a few years after, and then left to become the first employee of a vascular medicine company in Philadelphia, called Velano Vascular. I did much of the same work at Velano as I did at Zimmer. We sold Velano to Becton Dickinson in 2020. I had started Hanimune Therapeutics in 2018 and was doing both for a while until it got off the ground. Lil Mixins is our prevention or dietary supplement business, while at Hanimune Pharma we’re developing what we hope will be the world’s first treatment for egg allergy. We have developed a form of oral immunotherapy wherein the proteins have been structurally altered to change how they interact with the immune system. Our goal is to create a significantly safer alternative to standard oral immunotherapy, making it a better choice over allergen-avoidance, while also driving an immune-system shift much more akin to natural tolerance.
Q: How did the M&T Program prepare you for the path you took and your current role?
ML: I like to think that I did exactly what the program intended for me to do. On a day-to-day basis I actively use both my degrees and I always have. All my roles have been right at the intersection of engineering and commercialization, and I have to be able to dip into either side as needed.
When I think about my career, I think the program also prepared me to be able to understand a field of science in a way that I could communicate it to non-scientists. The dual degree helps you understand multiple perspectives and ways of thinking about the world simultaneously so that you can bridge them.
Q: Do you have any advice for current M&T students as they think about their options for the future?
ML: The world has made so much progress and yet there are always problems to be solved. Which ones are the most interesting to you? Be in that space. There’s pressure to know what you want to do right now, but you don’t know everything – you barely know what’s in the field you most are interested in. All you can do is know what area of problems you like to solve, what matters to you, and be open to new ideas and opportunities. That’s really the biggest piece of advice I have…Always be open to new opportunities where your unique skillset will be most useful.